Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Education/Leadership in Urban Schools

First Advisor

Jack Leonard

Second Advisor

Wenfan Yan

Third Advisor

Christopher Denning


There are many concerns related to students with emotional disturbance (ED) as they struggle in both academic and social domains (Little, Lane, Harris, Graham, Story & Sandmel, 2010; Nelson, Benner, Lane & Smith, 2004). There has been a strong emphasis on leadership in recent educational research and with such problems surrounding students with ED, one could turn to the leaders in special education. Research suggests that leadership plays a significant role in student achievement and learning:

“Of all the factors that contribute to what students learn at school, present evidence led us to the conclusion that leadership is second in strength only to classroom instruction. Furthermore, effective leadership has the greatest impact in those circumstances (e.g., schools “in trouble”) in which it is the most needed” (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004, p. 70).

With a focus in Massachusetts, this mixed methods study examined the leaders in special education, the special education adminsitrators at the district level. It sought to investigate the beliefs that special education administrators hold related to students with ED and their education. It worked to examine their leadership efficacy in leading for social justice and working with this population of students, their teachers and other leaders. Finally, this study worked towards an in-depth understanding of the contextual factors that may contribute to the administrators’ beliefs and efficacy.

In general, special education administrators hold strong beliefs about students with ED and their education as well as a high sense of efficacy to lead for social justice and transformative leadership. Results revealed, however, that the number of years that the administrators have been in the position and the type of school in which they work are both significant factors related to their beliefs and efficacy. Furthermore, three factors were found to be a source of the administrators’ efficacy including personal backgrounds, district policies and school/district culture. Findings from this study may be useful to school districts, administrator preparation programs and policymakers as they work to support special educators in the field as well as students with disabilities.


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